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Dick Tinsman is a member of the Maine Troop Greeters Board of Directors. He served in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve for 37 years.
I had heard of the Maine Troop Greeters for years. When I retired from the Coast Guard Reserve in 2005, I moved back to reside in southern Maine. I knew the Troop Greeters had a very focused mission – to greet and honor deploying and returning troops, expressing the Nation’s gratitude. What I didn’t realize was the incredibly emotional experience that comes with greeting and honoring the brave souls that represent our country as soldiers, aircrews and sailors. As my wife and I worked our way back to Bangor (she grew up in Hermon), we both finally got a chance to be a part of the honor of greeting troops at Bangor International Airport.
Bangor Airport is one of the closest major runways to northern Europe, thus many flights from or to Europe pass over Maine on their way to their destinations. Bangor became a stopping point for many military flights during Desert Storm in 1991 and subsequent military operations. During Desert Storm hundreds of military flights stopped at Bangor for fuel or crew rest. Publication of flight arrival times through radio and television, American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Chamber of Commerce and Bangor Daily News fostered an environment where people in the Bangor area knew when the troops would be deplaning at Bangor.
The Bangor response was phenomenal. City leaders, airport authority staff, area business leaders and residents made their way to the airport to greet and express gratitude to deploying and returning troops. One of the original Troop Greeters told me of times that he and his wife couldn’t get into the terminal because so many people had already shown up. Local school bands, football teams, scout groups and area businesses donating food became a norm for troops transiting Bangor,Maine.
In recent years (though not during the COVID-19 pandemic), we have been notified by secure communications that flights are arriving so that troop greeters can be ready to honor the troops. When a flight of troops arrives in the terminal, we first see the troops at the far end of the “Troop Greeter Hall.” They usually look exhausted. Most are coming from time zones several hours away and they have been traveling for hours or days. Most are young enough to be the same age as many of the troop greeters’ grandchildren.
For any given flight, 30-40 troop greeters will assemble (along with interested people in the terminal who want to honor our troops). We start applauding the troops as they walk through Troop Greeter Hall. The smiles on the troops’ faces turn radiant and the exhaustion they felt on arrival has evaporated. There are tears in many eyes for the appreciation (both for the troops and for the troop greeters). The emotional high in saying “thank you for your service” is incredible – often eliciting a similar response from the troops to the troop greeter. These young men and women are doing the work many of us had done 20-70 years earlier (Yes, there are still a couple of World War II veterans who greet the flights).
At the Troop Greeters Museum in the airport, there are thousands of letters from troops who have been greeted at Bangor or from parents who wrote to the troop greeters to thank us for the special treatment their son or daughter received from Bangor. When a military person is deployed, the moment they return and step on U.S. soil for the first time is a special significant emotional event. The stepping on soil in Bangor, Maine has been significantly heightened by applause, handshakes, smiles, snacks, free phone use, sincere appreciation and conversation. Most of the flights are privately contracted flights with an airline. I’ve heard stories from flight attendants (when the inflight announcement was made that the flight would be stopping in Bangor) that many troops ask whether the Maine Troop Greeters will be there.
I expect the founders of troop greeting in Bangor probably had little idea that what they started and fostered would be continuing as strongly today. I feel certain they believed it was the right thing to do. It was and it is.
Thank you to those who came before for creating a culture of welcome and appreciation for our troops. Thank you to our troops, who for 30 years have seen a side of Maine people that reflect the best of our society. We continue to honor our troops – expressing the gratitude of a nation for their service. Join us if you are in the airport and see us gathering to welcome a flight.
To join the Bangor Daily News’ 30 year anniversary celebration of the tradition of greeting the troops at 6 p.m. on Nov. 10, sign up here.